Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958
Conversation With Lillian Gish
When Miss Lillian Gish came to London in August last year to play in Anthony Asquith s Orders to Kill (her first film in this country since she made Hearts of the World with Griffith), the most extraordinary thing about her was that she so strikingly and completely resembled-Lillian Gish. She may, as the reference books say, have played in In Convicts’ Stripes in 1902; but it is hard to believe, for she is still unmistakably ‘the Gish girl’-a little taller than we have always imagined, and certainly not so defenceless against the great steel world as the heroines she used to play, but still retaining all their calm and repose and dignity. She still clasps her hands together in front of her chin; or, in an uncertain moment, puts her right fore finger, quite unconsciously, to the corner of her mouth. Her stamina is remarkable, she has always interspersed her vigorous career on Broadway with marathon sea-trips by freighter (“the only way to travel, If you can stand it”). Following her work on Orders to Kilt she went straight to Berlin to rehearse two plays for a new arena theatre there-Wilder’s Wreck of the 5.25 and Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna, an early draft of Streetcar Named Desire, written especially for Miss Gish. After this she returns to Broadway, where she hopes to play with her sister Dorothy in a new play written for them by Clare Boothe – The Little Dipper. In an interview with SIGHT AND SOUND she recollected some of her work in the silent cinema:
Miss Gish on D.W. Griffith
In all the eight or nine years I worked with Mr. Griffith, I never saw him with anything in writing-never anything like a script, not even on Intolerance. He just seemed to have everything in his head. The only person to make any notes was Jimmy Smith, the cutter, who had to make a record of everything Mr. Griffith shot and what he wanted to do with it, of course. It was always Mr. Griffith. Around 1940 I used to see him, and then, it’s true, I sometimes called him David. Even so, I might have said David, but I always thought Mr. Griffith. He was a born general. His voice was a vo:ce of command. It was resonant, deep and full. When he came to England in 1917, Mr. Lloyd George said to Mr. Griffith, I remember, “You have the most powerful medium for propaganda the world has ever known”. He was very amused, though, when they invited him to become the head of the department of film propaganda in the U.S.S.R. It was a very strange idea. Mr. Griffith was an aristocrat to the soles of his feet. He always claimed to be descended from the Kings of Wales, you know. . . ,
I always wanted to do a film biography of Mr. Griffith, but it never proved possible. I did it on television, though, for Philco. I played Lillian Gish. There was one scene where I went into a producer’s office and said: You have taken an art form that was a new approach to truth and beauty, and debased it for what you can get out of it. People warned Philco that they’d be put out of business if they dared broadcast such sentiments; but they didn’t cut out the scene, I’m glad to say. And they weren’t put out of business either. Mr. Griffith was a very great director-Eisenstein, you know, acknowledged his tremendous debt to him. Since Griffith, no-one has added anything new to the film-except Walt Disney. Griffith was even one of the first to make talking pictures. Dream Street, which he made in 1921, was a talkie.
(1916. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish)
Intolerance is still one of the greatest pictures ever made. Griffith wanted it to run 3-or 4 hours, you know; but he had to cut it to please the exhibitors. That race apart-exhibitors!
Of course, he should never have given way. Right at the beginning he could be very firm indeed. Later, though, he couldn’t. . . . In the long run, though, Intolerance did a disservice to the industry. It set a fashion for expensive pictures. Everybody wanted his picture to cost more than the next man’s ….
Mr. Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art wants me to re-edit Intolerance some day-to put it back to Griffith’s original idea. Of course, it would take a great deal of time.
Hearts of the World
(1918. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish, Robert Harron)
When we were children in Hollywood, my sister Dorothy and I would cross the road to avoid meeting Mr. Erich von Stroheim. He had such scars. We’d never seen a man with such terrible scars. Then we came to rehearse Hearts of the World, and Mr. Griffith gave Mr. von Stroheim one of the leading parts to rehearse. Of course, we never knew whether we would finally play the parts we rehearsed in the actual picture–Mr. Griffith never told you what you were doing until the last moment. Anyway, when we came to make the picture, he didn’t give the part to Mr. von Stroheim. Mr. von Stroheim cried like a little child. He was inconsolable. Mr. Griffith told him that it was only because he was not the right height, and that he was to play another part. But it was no use; Mr. von Stroheim just cried and cried. We were most impressed. We’d seen ladies cry, of course, but never a man, not like that. And after that, we didn’t cross the road any more when we saw Mr. von Stroheim coming down the street. I never had any admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as a director, though, as I had for Mr. Lubitsch, for example.
Anyone could have shot Greed as he did, scene by scene and line by line from the book. But I shall always have the greatest admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as an actor.
(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess)
You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous-the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned-spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and brought up his breakfast. …
The smile-where I just lift the corners of my mouth with my two fingers-that was all mine, too. I didn’t think it out; it was automatic, instinctive.
The Greatest Thing in Life
(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron)
The Greatest Thing in Life was Mr. Griffith’s best film. You shouldn’t judge that man without seeing it. There’s one extraordinary scene, you know. A coloured soldier is dying; and there is a white boy with him-played by Robert Harron. The coloured boy is delirious, and calling for his mother-he wants her to kiss him. So to quieten him, the white boy bends down and kisses him, on the lips. As you know, this is a very brave thing to show in a film-two men, like that. It’s a very remarkable film.
True Heart Susie
(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron)
That was Queen Alexandra’s favourite film …. It seems a strange film for a Queen to like. She was my idea of what a Queen should be, though.
Remodelling Her Husband
(1920. Directed by Lillian Gish. With Dorothy Gish, James Rennie)
This was the only film I ever directed myself. Oh, I’d never do it again. Mr. Griffith had moved East, you see, and left me to make the film. “I thought that men would work better for you than for me,” he said. I had no idea of practical things, like measurements; but when the workmen asked me how high I wanted the walls of the set I told them, Oh, eight feet (or whatever it was). Well, of course, they weren’t high enough, so that the cameraman George Hill could never photograph them properly.
Way Down East
(1920. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess)
It was terrible doing the location shooting at Mamaroneck; four people lost their lives one way or another during the filming of Way Down East. I was the only one the insurance company passed as being completely fit; and I think I had to put up with more than anybody else during that dreadful winter. There was one day when I had been facing the blizzard practically the whole time; everyone else, of course, had their backs to the wind, and even then some of them had had to give up. My face was covered in icicles and I was frozen. “Get that face, Billy! Get that face!” Mr. Griffith yelled (to G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, the cameraman). Then I collapsed. They had to carry me back to the studio after the day’s shooting was finished. When we filmed the baptism of the dying child, no-one could speak. We had a real baby, you remember; and its father had brought it to the studio. Of course, during the scene, I had my back to the camera. I was half-way through the scene when I heard a thud. I couldn’t think what it was; afterwards I discovered the baby’s father had fainted. He just couldn’t take it.
(1926. Directed by King Vidor. With Lillian Gish and John Gilbert)
How I chose Mr. Vidor to direct that film was very simple. Mr. Thalberg and Mr. Mayer asked which director I would like. They showed me a number of new films, including just one reel from an uncompleted picture called The Big Parade. I decided at once, and took not only Vidor, but other people from that wonderful film-John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, for instance. When I finally came to the death scene, they were all terrified, all the people on the set. I just stopped breathing; and I was so still and pale and I stopped breathing for so long, they thought I really had died. Mr. Vidor describes it in his book. But there is one thing I cannot forgive him. He says I stuffed my cheeks with cotton wool. It’s quite untrue. I did no such thing. While I was studying the part, I used to go to a hospital for consumptives, to find out what it was like when they had their paroxysms of coughing, and how their necks went, and so on. I got the priest in charge to take me, and he explained to them why I was there. They were all terribly excited and interested. They would say: “Oh, so-and-so died this morning, and she was like this, and went like this .. . . ” Just as if they were giving you the recipe for their favourite cake or something.
The Scarlet Letter
(1926. Directed by Victor Sjostrom. With Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson)
I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: “Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It is an American classic, taught in all our schools”. Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom, who had arrived at M.G.M. some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom.
[Some years ago Miss Gish wrote: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . . The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression”.]
It was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before th~ camera, of course; and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we all were tremendously moved by it.
The Film Actor
I think you can learn most from primitive things- from birds and animals- that was what Mr. Griffith advised us. You see, we silent actors had to be able to speak to an international audience-we had to be able to get over to Oriental peoples, for example, who didn’t know anything of our customs or conventions. And that gave our acting a great universality. We tried to perfect a kind of Esperanto of the arts, and we were on the verge of it when sound came …. The most perfect silent film, of course, was The Last Laugh, in which Murnau at last dispensed entirely with titles. My mother was my hardest critic and a great help to me. She only came to the studio once; and she was so horrified to see the things that were done to her daughters that she never came near again. . . . I remember once in our earliest days we rushed home, terribly pleased because people had recognised us and turned round to look at us in the street. “If you walked down the street with a ring in your nose, they’d turn and look at you just the same”, she said. I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.
Sight and Sound – Winter 1957 – 8
The Film Quarterly